Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

It's a tacit vote of approval. On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, Graham blessed the bloodshed by praying, Bible in hand, at President George Bush's side. After Bush addressed the nation, Graham said, "I think you clarified the situation," and Bush said, "I know in my heart I've done right." These are the exchanges we cite when we call Graham a spiritual adviser to presidents. Yet Graham admits that Bush never asked for his opinion about the Gulf War, and Graham never gave it.

"Perhaps he too easily fulfills this iconic role of the national chaplain," suggests William Shea, professor of American religion at St. Louis University. "Personally, I think the president ought to take religious counsel in private, and when there is something to be said about policy, the religious leaders ought to speak up in the public arena where they can take a hit for it. Too often, Billy Graham has slid into the Oval Office, had his picture taken and slid out."

It's left him a consummate diplomat, choosing to take a stand only on "issues that have a very clear biblical answer, where it's black or white," explains Crusade director Scott Lenning. In the heat of the Bosnia controversy, the Indianapolis Star wrote, "Although he would not say whether he supports or opposes the campaign, Graham clearly laments the violence there." As for partisan politics, Graham said in Tampa, "I'm for all of them. I think we have some wonderful leaders."

A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
Archive Photos
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s

That's the mature Billy Graham, a man who refuses to criticize, clash or even react to confrontation. As a result, anyone who challenges him looks churlish. "In my district," said one politician, "you can be against motherhood, but you cannot be against Billy Graham." In 1994, a North Carolina candidate saved the Billy Graham trump card for his last TV commercial: "It's bad enough he doesn't pay his bills," the voice-over said scathingly of the guy's opponent, "but there's no excuse for attacking Billy Graham."

Fiddling While the Pagans Burn

The first Crusades weren't exactly conducted in a spirit of religious tolerance. But as long as you leave out the entire non-Christian chunk of the world, Graham has been remarkably open. Denomination never did mean much to him: Child of a Presbyterian and a Methodist, he underwent his third baptism — a full immersion — only as a courtesy, in order to pastor a Southern Baptist church. When he hit the road, he announced, "I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ.... The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love."

This willingness to set aside theoretical differences initially won him enemies, but it soon built into a generous ecumenical movement that made anyone who held back look petty. Shea, who spent time at the Billy Graham archives researching a book on the oft-strained relations between Catholicism and evangelicalism, says, "Graham had a great deal to do with changing that bitterness. He is never disrespectful of people's freedom in religion." Well, no — except that implicit in every statement is the hellfire awaiting Jews, Muslims and the Dalai Lama. "You have got to go for that, though," grins Shea. "He's really careful. He does not come out and say, "Muslims will burn in hell,' or "Catholics will burn in hell,' the way his predecessors did."

Grateful, non-Christians mainly keep silent. But back in 1973, Jewish leaders did approach Graham, politely expressing their resentment of all this public Christian evangelism. He responded by explaining his commitment to "establish contacts with all men concerning personal faith in Jesus Christ" — but he did denounce coercion, intimidation, gimmickry and the singling-out of Jews and other groups. Even Graham's volunteers sign cards promising they will not proselytize for their own denomination; they are taught never to argue, pry, overemphasize the negative, run down another's faith or scowl. The entire approach is so warmly positive that, when the BGEA Web page defines prayer itself as "the special privilege of those who have become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ," nobody notices that they've just sweetly barred the rest of the populace from any spiritual connection with God.

"A personal relationship with Jesus is what transforms your life," explains Joani Akers, outreach and prayer pastor at Abundant Life Church in Des Peres. "You know that God loves you and has a plan for your life. It gives you greater purpose, and hope. It fills the void." Akers, who has volunteered to counsel during the Crusade, is eager for others to know that Jesus is the only way to salvation — a belief she sees as coming from faith, not arrogance. "I think that's why Jesus also said, "The way is narrow," she notes. "And why he commissions us to love people. That's the last thing he said: "Go into all the world and make disciples.'" Accordingly, Akers and her husband traveled to Indonesia and Bali this summer. She says "the people there are wonderful, but they believe in many gods that cannot help them. The God that I serve speaks to me, provides, heals. The Muslims and the Hindus serve a God who is dead. That's the difference in being a born-again Christian: You are serving a living God."

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